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Why aren’t there more black fashion designers?

It's time for us to start caring about diversity further than the end of the runway

As Black History Month draws to a close in the UK we're aiming to shine a spotlight on those driving things forward. #DazedBlackFutures is a tribute to the artists, activists, designers and key voices shaping black British culture for the next gen.

Let’s be optimistic. Diversity in fashion has come a long way over the past few years, with active discussions urging brands to hire models of different ages, races and gender identities in their runway shows and advertising campaigns. Still, there’s a problem: these conversations seem to stop at the end of the runway.

Try to think of prominent black designers currently in the industry – the list is embarrassingly small. It isn’t just limited to design though, it is the same across the board for stylists, photographers, writers and art directors too. As for any who are working for established fashion houses, you’d struggle to think of anyone other than Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing. That isn’t to say that there aren’t talented and successful contemporary black designers – Martine Rose, Grace Wales Bonner, Virgil Abloh, Samuel Ross and Telfar Clemens are a few who immediately come to mind. Still, why aren’t there more?

Patrick Lee Yow – director of the Fashion Folio course at Central Saint Martins – blames the increasing levels of student debt and unaffordable rent in London but ultimately thinks the education system is the biggest problem – particularly the fact that schools and colleges are not preparing black students properly to study at creative universities.

As a black course director, Lee Yow himself is among a minority at CSM. Last year’s Diversity Report shows that BAME people make up only 17 per cent of the staff in the entirety of UAL, and only 10 per cent or the 3,000 plus academic staff – something that he is understandably angry about. “At Central Saint Martins, I don’t know how many brown-skinned course directors you’d see,” he says. “You find all the brown-skinned people in the offices – possibly cleaning.” When describing the difficulties black students have getting into the college, he used the word “elitist”, something that is echoed by Berni Yates – an outreach practitioner at CSM who has worked for over 15 years on the Insights project which focuses on getting more BAME students to apply for design courses.

“A lot of the young black students say that they would rather not come to CSM – which they feel is is a lot more elitist and perhaps not really for people of their background,” she says. More than solely in design, Yates believes that there is just as little diversity in other creative courses too. And while the number of BAME students is currently at 43 per cent, it’s not clear how many of them are from abroad (and able to afford the resulting £18,000 yearly tuition) as opposed to less economically privileged British students of colour.

That isn’t to say that Insights isn’t making a change, with Ib Kamara and Campbell Addy – who Yates worked with – two graduates now paving their own way in the industry. Kamara’s varied styling has seen him reimagine 16th-century art on a cast of black models and pay tribute to Caribbean fishermen as well as working for brands like Kenzo and Stella McCartney. Photographer Addy has also had successes – diversifying stock imagery for Getty and creating Niijournal, a magazine that focused on black mental health for its most recent issue. “They’ve kind of carved their own way, through their black identity into their own style, and they have set up their own looks,” Yates reflected on how the pair have found success.

“A lot of the young black students say that they would rather not come to CSM – which they feel is is a lot more elitist and perhaps not really for people of their background” – Berni Yates

Among the small list of contemporary black designers, Samuel Ross grew up in a deprived area of Northamptonshire and has gone on to find success working on projects with Nike and Barney’s – he was last week nominated for British Menswear Emerging Talent at the 2017 Fashion Awards. While Ross too focuses on heritage and background through design for his label A-COLD-WALL*, it is more about working-class culture rather than familial heritage. He thinks that black parents need to be more accepting of creative jobs and push their children to pursue them. “Past generations often have to lay the foundation or footprint for their children and immediate relatives which entails sacrifice, catering to primary needs such as keeping the lights on, and food on the table – art and expression is usually pushed to the side or suppressed, excluding rare cases,” he said. 

Luckily for him, his own father studied Fine Art at CSM – graduating with a first – which allowed Ross to follow a creative path, choosing to study graphic design and illustration at De Montfort university as one of five black people out of 240 in his year. Following his degree, Ross worked as creative assistant to Virgil Abloh on Off-White, something that he attributes to helping him find his path into fashion. Overall, education is still key. “If more people of colour make the decision to study in design-related fields, a shift will occur – as it is now, it doesn’t guarantee success but it levels the playing field.”

One emerging black British designer is Mowalola Ogunlesi who presented her graduate collection earlier this year at CSM’s BA show. Paying homage to her Nigerian heritage, she sent Lagos petrolheads down the runway to the sounds of 80s Nigerian Psychedelic Rock. While she was always pushed to explore her background, she felt like the minority as one of four black students in her year.

Like Ross, Ogunlesi believes that the problem comes from different attitudes towards creative careers in black families. “A lot of the time black parents don’t understand that you can be successful with unconventional careers due to the lack of successful black creatives in the industry,” the young designer explained. Along with design role models like Wales Bonner, Ogunlesi also praised the appointment of Edward Enninful as editor-in-chief at British Vogue – something she believes will create “more visibility as well as mentoring and coaching opportunities for black designers.”

It is difficult to say what the future holds for black designers. Obviously, there needs to be change, but how to make it happen is not as straightforward. Lee Yow was not optimistic – saying that to find ways to attract and accept more BAME students, uncomfortable questions need to be asked and radical action taken. “It doesn’t reflect London and it will get goddamn boring,” agreed Yates. “We need kids that are coming from London and doing exciting cool stuff.”

“If more people of colour make the decision to study in design-related fields, a shift will occur – as it is now, it doesn’t guarantee success but it levels the playing field” – Samuel Ross

Ross was more hopeful. “I can confidently say the conversation is being had and acted upon, it takes a while for the process of those talented individuals to go through the pilgrimage and reach surface level,” he explained, naming his mentor Abloh and Kanye West as design icons who are acting as role models that black youth are aspiring to be as successful as.

This year, change was celebrated in the form of Dior hiring its first female creative director in its 70-year history. Givenchy too, in not so many years. While it is a different discussion in itself, it begs the question: will it be another 70 years before an established house hires its first black creative director?